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A series of distinct event-related potentials (ERPs) have been recorded from the scalp of human subjects as they switch from one task to another. It is possible that task switching may depend on different mechanisms depending on whether the switch requires a change in attentional set, in other words the redirecting of attention to different aspects of a sensory stimulus, or whether it requires a change in intentional set, in others words a change in the way that responses are selected. To address this issue, the current study recorded ERPs while subjects switched between attentional sets and the results were compared with those of a previous investigation in which subjects switched between intentional sets. Subjects selected stimuli according to two conflicting attentional sets, each emphasizing one visual stimulus dimension (colour, shape). Pairs of stimuli, only one of which was to be attended, were presented for between eight and seventeen trials then either a switch or a stay cue was shown. The switch cue instructed subjects to switch from the current attentional set to the other set, while the stay cue instructed subjects to maintain the current set. Comparing ERPs time-locked to the switch and stay cues revealed neural correlates of the initiation of a task switch. Comparing the ERPs time locked to the first stimuli after either stay or switch cues identified neural correlates of the implementation of a task switch. A similar modulation over parietal electrodes was seen when subjects were switching between either attentional or intentional sets. While an intentional set switch began with a medial frontal modulation, attentional set switching began with a lateral frontal modulation. Implementing a new attentional set was associated with modulation of relatively early visual potentials, while implementing a new intentional set was associated with modulation of later response-related potentials. The results confirm that task switching consists of a number of constituent processes which may be taxed to different degrees depending on whether a task-switch paradigm requires subjects to change the way in which they select stimuli or responses.

Original publication




Journal article


Exp Psychol

Publication Date





83 - 98


Attention, Cues, Electroencephalography, Evoked Potentials, Humans, Intention, Prefrontal Cortex